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Robert Gordon’s university

Yet another university has stopped its homeopathy course. The particular interest of this course was that it was being run at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, the vice-chancellor which was Michael Pittilo, until his recent premature death. Pittilo is the person who recommended to the government that herbalists and Chinese medicine practitioners should get honours degrees and be regulated like doctors. His report, was, in my opinions, disastrously bad

It recently emerged that this, very bad, advice would not be accepted by the Department of Health (DH), so the campaign against the Pittilo proposals, on this blog and elsewhere was successful. The alternative DH proposals look pretty silly, but we won’t really know until after the election exactly what will happen.

Robert Gordon University (RGU): is the ‘post-1992’ university in Aberdeen, as opposed the the University of Aberdeen (where my son is at the moment). Much of RGU does an excellent job, but like so many post-1992 universities they harm themselves by running courses in barmy alternative medicine. RGU ran an Introduction To Homeopathy module (saved 9 April 2010).

In July 2009, I asked RGU to see some samples of the teaching materials on this module, partly as part of the campaign against Pittilo’s proposals. I asked to see the powerpoints and handouts for three lectures, (1) evidence for homeopathy, (2) first aid remedies, and (3) allergies.

In September 2009, this request, made under the Freedom of Information Act (Scotland), was, as always, rejected by RGU, though they did tell me that the evidence lecture had been produced by a lecturer from The Faculty of Homeopathy and the other two had been produced by a local GP.

So, as usual, I asked for the mandatory internal review of the decision. In October, the review upheld the original decision, as they almost always do. I referred the decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner (the law is slightly different in Scotland) and they have still not responded.

But on 8 April 2010 I got a letter from RGU.

“The above course requested is no longer part of the School of Nursing and Midwifery’s provision, and it was cessated [sic] in Semester One 2009/10. This followed a formal review of all Nursing and Midwifery modules and their viability. In the light of this the university has decided to release the information.”

So yet another university has done the sensible thing. The course has been shut. Just for the record, I’ll reproduce a few of the slides from the lecture on “homeopathic remedies for allergies”.

Allergies can be dangerous, and occasionally lethal. To treat them with homeopathic pills, medicines that contain no medicine, is not just delusion, but a dangerous delusion which risks the lives of patients.

The "remedies" include nettles, sulphur, petroleum and arsenic.  They’d be pretty scary but in fact the pills contain, in most cases, not a jot of nettle, sulphur, petroleum or arsenic.  Homeopathic pharmacies stock thousands of bottles of identical sugar pills, each with a different label.

slide 5

slide 7

slide 8

slide 9

These dangerous delusions were being taught as fact in a UK university.  The shame of it..

Two weeks left to stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself. Email your response to tne Pittilo consultation to this email address HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk

I’ve had permission to post a submission that has been sent to the Pittilo consultation. The whole document can be downloaded here. I have removed the name of the author. It is written by the person who has made some excellent contributions to this blog under the pseudonym "Allo V Psycho".

The document is a model of clarity, and it ends with constructive suggestions for forms of regulation that will, unlike the Pittilo proposals, really protect patients

Here is the summary. The full document explains each point in detail.

Executive Summary
Statutory regulation lends prestige, but needs to be balanced by a requirement for practitioners to be competent, as is the case for doctors and nurses. Regulation almost exclusively deals with conduct, but the unique risks posed by alternative medicine are not addressed by this. The harms which will arise from licensing practitioners who are not required to show evidence of competence and efficacy are:

  • Harm 1. Misdiagnosis of serious conditions.  Alternative practitioners offer to diagnose illnesses without proper training. This can lead to avoidable death, such as treating an ectopic pregnancy with ginger.
  • Harm 2. Withdrawal from treatment. Clients of alternative practitioners risk being encouraged to withdraw from life saving treatments in favours of treatments without evidence, as in the death of baby Gloria Thomas.
  • Harm 3. Harms arising from the nature of the alternative practice, but not covered by the regulatory framework, such as adulterated herbal remedies.
  • Harm 4.  Lack of informed consent. If alternative practitioners are not required to study or show evidence of efficacy, how can they inform patients of their options?
  • Harm 5. Equity. Doctors and nurses have to use evidence based methods, but it is proposed that alternative practitioners are not held to this standard. Is this fair? Health Minsters should ask themselves if they advocate withdrawing the requirement for evidence based treatment from doctors and nurses. If not, why not? And if not, why should alternative practitioners be treated differently?
  • Harm 6. Promotion of irrationality. If no evidence of efficacy is required, where do you draw the line? Witch doctoring is a ‘traditional practice’ in communities in the UK, and astrology is used by some herbal healers.
  • Harm 7. Opportunity Costs. If no evidence of efficacy is required of alternative medicine, significant sums will be wasted by individuals and by the NHS.
  • Harm 8. Reputational harms for UK Higher Education. UK Honours Degrees are based on the ability to think critically and to assess evidence. Alternative medicine Degree programmes do not require this. These positions are not compatible.
  • Harm 9.  Health care futures. We are making slow but steady progress on health indicators through the use of evidence based methods. Why should the requirement for evidence be abandoned now?

Instead, safe regulation of alternative practitioners should be through:

  • The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency
  • The Office of Trading Standards via the Unfair Trading Consumer Protection Regulations,
  • A new Health Advertising Standards Authority, modelled on the successful Cancer Act 1939.

The first two recommendations for effective regulation are much the same as mine, but the the third one is interesting. The problem with the Cancer Act (1939), and with the Unfair Trading regulations, is that they are applied very erratically. They are the responsibility of local Trading Standards offices, who have, as a rule, neither the expertise nor the time to enforce them effectively. A Health Advertising Standards Authority could perhaps take over the role of enforcing existing laws. But it should be an authority with teeth. It should have the ability to prosecute. The existing Advertising Standards Authority produces, on the whole, excellent judgements but it is quite ineffective because it can do very little.

A letter from an acupuncturist

I had a remarkable letter recently from someone who actually practises acupuncture. Here are some extracts.

“I very much enjoy reading your Improbable Science blog. It’s great to see good old-fashioned logic being applied incisively to the murk and spin that passes for government “thinking” these days.”

“It’s interesting that the British Acupuncture Council are in favour of statutory regulation. The reason is, as you have pointed out, that this will confer a respectability on them, and will be used as a lever to try to get NHS funding for acupuncture. Indeed, the BAcC’s mission statement includes a line “To contribute to the development of healthcare policy both now and in the future”, which is a huge joke when they clearly haven’t got the remotest idea about the issues involved.”

“Before anything is decided on statutory regulation, the British Acupuncture Council is trying to get a Royal Charter. If this is achieved, it will be seen as a significant boost to their respectability and, by implication, the validity of state-funded acupuncture. The argument will be that if Physios and O.T.s are Chartered and safe to work in the NHS, then why should Chartered Acupuncturists be treated differently? A postal vote of 2,700 BAcC members is under-way now and they are being urged to vote “yes”. The fact that the Privy Council are even considering it, is surprising when the BAcC does not even meet the requirement that the institution should have a minimum of 5000 members (http://www.privy-council.org.uk/output/Page45.asp). Chartered status is seen as a significant stepping-stone in strengthening their negotiating hand in the run-up to statutory regulation.”

“Whatever the efficacy of acupuncture, I would hate to see scarce NHS resources spent on well-meaning, but frequently gormless acupuncturists when there’s no money for the increasing costs of medical technology or proven life-saving pharmaceuticals.”

“The fact that universities are handing out a science degree in acupuncture is a testament to how devalued tertiary education has become since my day. An acupuncture degree cannot be called “scientific” in any normal sense of the term. The truth is that most acupuncturists have a poor understanding of the form of TCM taught in P.R.China, and hang on to a confused grasp of oriental concepts mixed in with a bit of New Age philosophy and trendy nutritional/life-coach advice that you see trotted out by journalists in the women’s weeklies. This casual eclectic approach is accompanied by a complete lack of intellectual rigour.

My view is that acupuncturists might help people who have not been helped by NHS interventions, but, in my experience, it has very little to do with the application of a proven set of clinical principles (alternative or otherwise). Some patients experience remission of symptoms and I’m sure that is, in part, bound up with the psychosomatic effects of good listening, and non-judgemental kindness. In that respect, the woolly-minded thinking of most traditional acupuncturists doesn’t really matter, they’re relatively harmless and well-meaning, a bit like hair-dressers. But just because you trust your hairdresser, it doesn’t mean hairdressers deserve the Privy Council’s Royal Charter or that they need to be regulated by the government because their clients are somehow supposedly “vulnerable”.”

Earlier postings on the Pittilo recommendations

A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor http://www.dcscience.net/?p=235

Article in The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)

Some follow up on The Times piece

The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense

Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed

Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself  http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2007

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients  http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043

One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery.  The Pittilo questionnaire, http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2310


The article below is an editorial that I was asked to write for the New Zealand Medical Journal, as a comment on article in today’s edition about the misuse of the title ‘doctor’ by chiropractors [download pdf]. Titles are not the only form of deception used by chiropractors, so the article looks at some of the others too.  For a good collection of articles that reveal chiropractic for what it is, look at Chirobase


Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association

NZMJ 25 July 2008, Vol 121 No 1278; ISSN 1175 8716

URL: http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/121-1278/3158/ ©NZMA

Doctor Who?
Inappropriate use of titles by some alternative “medicine” practitioners

David Colquhoun

Who should use the title ‘doctor’? The title is widely abused as shown by Gilbey1 in this issue of the NZMJ in an article entitled Use of inappropriate titles by New Zealand practitioners of acupuncture, chiropractic, and osteopathy. Meanwhile, Evans and colleagues 2, also in this issue, discuss usage and attitudes to alternative treatments.

Gilbey finds that the abuse of the title doctor is widespread and that chiropractors are the main culprits. An amazing 82% of 146 chiropractics used the title Doctor, andL most of them used the title to imply falsely that they were registered medical practitioners.

Although it is illegal in New Zealand to do that, it seems clear that the law is not being enforced and it is widely flouted. This is perhaps not surprising given the history of chiropractic. It has had a strong element of ruthless salesmanship since it was started in Davenport, Iowa by D.D. Palmer (1845–1913). His son, B.J. Palmer, said that their chiropractic school was founded on “a business, not a professional basis. We manufacture chiropractors. We teach them the idea and then we show them how to sell” (Shapiro 2008)3 It is the same now. You can buy advice on how to build “build high-volume, subluxation-based, cash-driven, lifetime family wellness practices”

In her recent book3 , Rose Shapiro comments on the founder of chiropractic as follows.

“By the 1890s Palmer had established a magnetic healing practice in Davenport, Iowa, and was styling himself “doctor”. Not everyone was convinced, as a piece about him in an 1894 edition of the local paper, the Davenport Leader, shows.

A crank on magnetism has a crazy notion hat he can cure the sick and crippled with his magnetic hands. His victims are the weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious,those foolish people who have been sick for years and have become tired of the regular physician and want health by the short-cut method he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victim. His increase in business shows what can be done in Davenport, even by a quack.”

D.D. Palmer was a curious mixture: grocer, spiritual healer, magnetic therapist, fairground huckster, religious cult leader—and above all, a salesman. He finally found a way to get rich by removing entirely imaginary “subluxations”.

Over 100 years later, it seems that the “weak-minded, ignorant, and superstitious” include the UK’s Department of Health, who have given chiropractics a similar status to the General Medical Council.

The intellectual standards of a 19th Century Mid-Western provincial newspaper journalist are rather better than the intellectual standards of the UK’s Department of Health, and of several university vice-chancellors in 2007.

Do the treatments work?

Neither Gilbey nor Evans et al. really grasp the nettle of judging efficacy. The first thing one wants to know about any treatment —alternative or otherwise — is whether it works. Until that is decided, all talk of qualifications, regulation, and so on is just vacuous bureaucratese. No policy can be framed sensibly until the question of efficacy has been addressed honestly.

It is one good effect of the upsurge of interest in alternative treatments that there are now quite a lot of good trials of the most popular forms of treatments (as well as many more bad trials). Some good summaries of the results are now available too. Cochrane reviews set the standard for good assessment of evidence. New Zealand’s Ministry of Health commissioned the Complementary and Alternative Medicine
website to assess the evidence, and that seems to have done a good job too. Their assessment of chiropractic treatment of low back pain is as follows:

There appears to be some evidence from one systematic review and four other studies, although not conclusive, that chiropractic treatment is as effective as other therapies but this may be due to chance. There is very little evidence that chiropractic is more effective than other therapies.

And two excellent summaries have been published as books this year. Both are by people who have had direct experience of alternative treatments, but who have no financial interest in the outcome of their assessment of evidence. The book by Singh and Ernst4 summarises the evidence on all the major alternative treatments, and the book by Bausell5 concentrates particularly on acupuncture, because the author was for 5 years involved in research in that area, Both of these books come to much the same conclusion about chiropractic. It is now really very well-established that chiropractic is (at best) no more effective than conventional treatment. But it has the disadvantage of being surrounded by gobbledygook about “subluxations” and, more importantly, it kills the occasional patient.

Long (2004)7 said “the public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45.

The chiropractors of Alberta (Canada) and the Alberta Government are now facing a class-action lawsuit8. The lead plaintiff is Sandra Nette. Formerly she was a fit 41 year old. Now she is tetraplegic. Immediately
after neck manipulation by a chiropractor she had a massive stroke as a result of a torn vertebral artery.

Acupuncture comes out of the assessments equally badly. Bausell (2007) concludes that it is no more than a theatrical placebo.

Are the qualifications even real?

It is a curious aspect of the alternative medicine industry that they often are keen to reject conventional science, yet they long for academic respectability. One aspect of this is claiming academic titles on the flimsiest of grounds. You can still be held to have misled the public into thinking you are a medical
practitioner, even if you have a real doctorate. But often pays to look into where the qualifications come from.

A celebrated case in the UK concerned the ‘lifestyle nutritionist’, TV celebrity and multi-millionaire, Dr Gillian McKeith, PhD. A reader of Ben Goldacre’s excellent blog, badscience.net did a little investigation. The results appeared in Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian9.

She claimed that her PhD came from the American College of Nutrition, but it turned out to come from a correspondence course from a non-accredited US ‘college’. McKeith also boasted of having “professional membership” of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, for which she provided proof of her degree and three professional references.

The value of this qualification can be judged by the fact that Goldacre sent an application and $60 and as a result “My dead cat Hettie is also a “certified professional member” of the AANC. I have the certificate hanging in my loo”.

Is the solution government regulation?

In New Zealand the law about misleading the public into believing you are a medical practitioner already exists. The immediate problem would be solved if that law were taken seriously, but it seems that it is not.

It is common in both the UK and in New Zealand to suggest that some sort of official government regulation is the answer. That solution is proposed in this issue of NZMJ by Evans et al2. A similar thing has been proposed recently in the UK by a committee headed by Michael Pittilo, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon’s University, Aberdeen.

I have written about the latter under the heading A very bad report. The Pittilo report recommends both government regulation and more degrees in alternative medicine. Given that we now know that most alternative medicine doesn’t work, the idea of giving degrees in such subjects must be quite ludicrous to any thinking person.

The magazine Nature7 recently investigated the 16 UK universities who run such degrees. In the UK, first-year students at the University of Westminster are taught that “amethysts emit high yin energy” . Their vice chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, describes himself a s a geomorphologist, but he cannot be tempted to express an opinion about the curative power of amethysts.

There has been a tendency to a form of grade inflation in universities—higher degrees for less work gets bums on seats. For most of us, getting a doctorate involves at least 3 years of hard experimental research in a university. But in the USA and Canada you can get a ‘doctor of chiropractic’ degree and most chiropractic (mis)education is not even in a university but in separate colleges.

Florida State University famously turned down a large donation to start a chiropractic school because they saw, quite rightly, that to do so would damage their intellectual reputation. This map, now widely distributed on the Internet, was produced by one of their chemistry professors, and it did the trick.

Other universities have been less principled. The New Zealand College of Chiropractic [whose President styles himself “Dr Brian Kelly”,though his only qualification is B. App Sci (chiro)] is accredited by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA). Presumably they, like their UK equivalent (the QAA), are not allowed to take into account whether what is being taught is nonsense or not. Nonsense courses are accredited by experts in nonsense. That is why much accreditation is not worth the paper it’s written on.

Of course the public needs some protection from dangerous or fraudulent practices, but that can be done better (and more cheaply) by simply enforcing existing legislation on unfair trade practices, and on false advertising. Recent changes in the law on unfair trading in the UK have made it easier to take legal action against people who make health claims that cannot be justified by evidence, and that seems the best
way to regulate medical charlatans.


For most forms of alternative medicine—including chiropractic and acupuncture—the evidence is now in. There is now better reason than ever before to believe that they are mostly elaborate placebos and, at best, no better than conventional treatments. It is about time that universities and governments recognised the evidence and stopped talking about regulation and accreditation.

Indeed, “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction, or malformations” is illegal in Europe10.

Making unjustified health claims is a particularly cruel form of unfair trading practice. It calls for prosecutions, not accreditation.

Competing interests: None.
NZMJ 25 July 2008, Vol 121 No 1278; ISSN 1175 8716
URL: http://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/121-1278/3158/ ©NZMA

Author information: David Colquhoun, Research Fellow, Dept of Pharmacology, University College London, United Kingdom (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Pharmacology/dc.html)

Correspondence: Professor D Colquhoun, Dept of Pharmacology, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom. Fax: +44(0)20 76797298; email: d.colquhoun@ucl.ac.uk


1. Gilbey A. Use of inappropriate titles by New Zealand practitioners of acupuncture, chiropractic, and osteopathy. N Z Med J. 2008;121(1278). [pdf]

2. Evans A, Duncan B, McHugh P, et al. Inpatients’ use, understanding, and attitudes towards traditional, complementary and alternative therapies at a provincial New Zealand hospital. N Z Med J. 2008;121(1278).

3 Shapiro. Rose. Suckers. How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All Random House, London 2008. (reviewed here)

4. Singh S, Ernst E. Trick or Treatment. Bantam Press; 2008 (reviewed here)

5. Bausell RB. Snake Oil Science. The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (reviewed here)
Oxford University Press; 2007

6. Colquhoun D. Science degrees without the Science, Nature 2007;446:373–4. See also here.

7. Long PH. Stroke and spinal manipulation. J Quality Health Care. 2004;3:8–10.

8. Libin K. Chiropractors called to court. Canadian National Post; June21, 2008.

9. Goldacre B. A menace to science. London: Guardian; February 12, 2007/

10. Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR). Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. UK: Office of Fair Trading.

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